Hundreds watched in horror Thursday as thousands of groceries from Laney Supermarket in Augusta, Ga., were discarded into dumpsters. After storeowners were evicted last week, SunTrust Bank was unable to find a suitable third-party collector for the goods.
As tragic as this isolated incident was, it speaks to the national — and global — problem of food security. Between 30% and 50% of edible food products are wasted worldwide each year. More shockingly, the annual aggregate food waste of the world’s industrialized nations exceeds all food production in sub-Saharan Africa.
This tragedy-of-the-commons has manifested itself under the radar. In traditional scenarios, society understands that depleting a common resource is not in their long-term interest. Food waste, however, has complex consequences that are often hidden from public view.
It is thought, for example, that food waste has a direct impact on agricultural expenses — that is to say that the more a food is disposed, the more expensive that food becomes. In the United States, variations in meat prices are usually the most pronounced. This results not from a cow or chicken shortage, but rather a foundational increase in agricultural costs. While corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice provide nourishment for livestock, the “essential commodities” also serve as dietary staples for the developing world. On a number of occasions, price fluctuations in these goods have thrust enormous populations into poverty.
2008’s global food crisis, which saw rice prices soar 217% in only seven months, was substantial enough to shift the poverty line. Recent estimates suggest it propelled 100 million Africans into poverty. Over the last decade, food price increases have persisted, largely driven by high fertilizer prices and widespread drought. But it has become clear that these two factors are, in a way, artificial.
If food waste was reduced, prices fluctuations would be far more manageable. Estimates suggest that the effect of waste on food prices costs the average Western household $16/week, roughly 5% to 10% of total grocery expenditures. The reality remains that food purchases constitute bigger expenses as income diminishes. In American markets, eggs, milk and bread, disproportionately consumed by the poor, experience the most severe volatilities in price.
To some degree, the West has taken steps to prevent further food crises. Food reserves are stable and ethanol production, which led to skyrocketing corn prices in the developing world, has declined substantially. Regardless, there will soon be 2.5 billion more people to feed. Systemic factors must be addressed before population pressures become too much to bear.
On the other side of the coin, food waste accounts for 14% of municipal landfill waste. When it biodegrades, methane — the most potent greenhouse gas — is emitted.
The common approach to climate change has been one of sacrifice. We must drive less, keep heating to a minimum, and avoid air conditioning. But industrialized societies show no signs of a change in this lifestyle. In the case of food, more practical options are available.